On January 30, 1972, British soldiers opened fire on a Catholic civil rights march in Londonderry, killing 13. One more person died later. File photo/AFP
For many Britons, the soldiers who intervened in Northern Ireland 50 years ago this week are unsung heroes who tried to keep the peace in a region riven with sectarian tensions.
To many Irish, they instead helped fuel the conflict.
The army’s 38-year presence in the province has left a bitter legacy in the form of a fierce political debate over whether soldiers should be prosecuted for alleged crimes.
“The ramifications echo right through contemporary Northern Ireland — the politics of now,” said Dominic Bryan, a professor at Queen’s University Belfast.
The dispute has led to demonstrations on both sides.
The Northern Ireland Veterans Association, which is holding an anniversary memorial event in the town of Lisburn on Saturday, said its members were “concerned.”
Truth and justice
The most emblematic incident was “Bloody Sunday.”
On January 30, 1972, British soldiers opened fire on a Catholic civil rights march in Londonderry, killing 13. One more person died later.
After a long campaign for justice by the families, Northern Irish prosecutors earlier this year announced that one soldier will stand trial for murder in September.
The announcement infuriated supporters of Britain’s military intervention but was broadly welcomed by the families, although they said it was not enough.
“It’s still an ongoing campaign,” John Kelly — whose brother Michael was killed on Bloody Sunday — told AFP.
“Out of 18 soldiers there’s only one being prosecuted. All 18 should have been prosecuted because they murdered innocent people on our streets that day.”
“What people want is truth and justice, it’s as simple as that.”
Prosecutions and inquiries over other killings are also still ongoing, dividing British and Northern Irish society over whether — and how — justice should be sought.
Some 10 per cent of the 3,500 victims of “The Troubles” were killed by members of the military and police.
Many are considered among the most egregious missteps in the conflict, perpetrated by security forces tasked with ensuring law and order, sometimes against unarmed civilians.
Rallies for veterans
The matter has been complicated by British MPs calling for amnesty for soldiers, matching prison release deals given to some 500 republican and loyalist paramilitaries when the conflict ended.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other MPs have voiced fears veterans are being hounded into old age by the threat of criminal action, with little chance of conclusively clearing their names.
Whilst campaigning to take charge as prime minister, Johnson promised to end “unfair” prosecutions of soldiers.
London and Belfast rallies of retired soldiers have been held to support “Soldier F” — the veteran who will stand trial — with protestors claiming they have unfairly become the main focus of investigations.
But some fear offering an amnesty to soldiers who served in Northern Ireland would be a tacit admission of guilt among those who served with integrity.
Uneven playing field
There are also concerns there will be an imbalance in justice if prosecutions are sought for events clouded by the passing of time.
“While the army kept extremely good operational records, the terrorists did not,” Richard Dannatt, a former head of the British Army who served in Northern Ireland, wrote in the News Letter paper in 2018.
“This makes a very uneven playing field on which to conduct these retrospective investigations.”
As a condition of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which ended the conflict, for example, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) also destroyed their weapons caches, a valuable source of ballistic evidence.
Long term cost
From the other side, there is also concern the British government would withhold evidence against its forces for purposes of national security, shielding it from scrutiny.
Unionist politicians are also wary of creating a moral equivalence between the actions of state-designated terrorists and security forces.
Trials could undermine the legitimacy of the British government’s decision to intervene and offer legitimacy to the actions of republican paramilitaries, responsible for the overwhelming majority of killings.
Professor Bryan added: “The full cost of the deployment of soldiers are not just the cost of lives at the time... but the long term cost in terms of historical memory and where it leads politics.”
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